“Do You Consider Yourself A Feminist?”: A Conversation with Lynn Hill
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Originally published in August, 2020 on Gymclimber.com
What is the best way to promote inclusivity in the climbing community? Is it through panel discussions, events and clubs? What should we, as a community, do differently to better support one another?
I sat down with Lynn Hill in her home, in Boulder, Colorado, to discuss the problems Hill has faced throughout her career and those that the climbing community continues to face today.
Hill is best known for being the first climber—male or female—to free the Nose on El Capitan, in 1993. A year later, she surpassed her accomplishment by becoming the first person to free the Nose in less than 24 hours. Hill also won a handful of Arco Rock Master competitions and World Cups. She was a pioneer for women in climbing and has since become a public spokesperson for the sport.
Climbing: How did society view women when you first started climbing?
Hill: I think in a more traditional way. I was offended when a guy would say something like, “Gee, I can’t even do that.” And you know, the guy would assume that he should naturally be stronger than a small girl. There are still expressions out there, like “climb like a girl,” that can be interpreted in many ways. There are subconscious messages that aren’t necessarily so subtle that put women in a box: We’re not as capable, we’re too emotional, we are not considered good calculated risk takers. Some of that is probably generally true because of our role as women to preserve our species—we try to do things that are reasonably safe. But I think that I can take calculated risks, although I do draw the line on certain levels that men tend to fill in way more, like alpine, free soloing, high risk activities like that. I just don’t see the reason to risk my life for a game or sport, for something that’s not necessary.
So I think women and men are different and some of society’s norms are based on those traits, but what I would object to and have objected to my entire life is the lack of fairness and opportunity that women have experienced. Women generally have to try a lot harder to get the same job and often times don’t get paid the same as men. So those are large society issues. I’ve seen that the subconscious element, whether it be against race or other prejudices, still exists. If two people are applying for a job, the stereotypical winner usually wins, and so that has created an imbalance in our society.
Climbing: How has being a woman impacted your climbing career?
Hill: I lost about 65% or more of my income after I had my son, Owen. Apparently I didn’t conform to the expectations of what others thought I should be. I received one email that said, “You’re not on the cover of climbing magazines anymore, so we are going to withhold our contribution to your sponsorship contract.” Statistically speaking, men get paid more when they become fathers and women generally get paid less. At this point, I don’t make my living from sponsorship contracts. I’m an independent contractor, which means that I provide a variety of services. I do speaking engagements, I’m a climbing guide and coach, and I’m currently finishing my climbing technique video series, which will be available on-line in a few months. [Find her video series and book Hill as a coach here.]
Climbing: Do you think panel discussion and/or gender specific events are effective vehicles for changing the way our community perceives female climbers?
Hill: It’s like marketing, right? Anytime there’s something that comes into your consciousness you are going to consider it. I guess it depends on how the panel goes, how it’s talked about, written about. How people actually feel about their experience. I think it really depends on the content itself.
As to whether it changes things, I think that change starts with consciousness. These events don’t necessarily offer solutions, although you’d think they would at least suggest a few solutions. That is the one frustrating thing in a lot of panel discussions. People just talk about what the problems are and there is no real discussion or focus on the solutions. Some people who are bright and who are trying to contribute will make suggestions if they have them, but it’s not like these issues have easy solutions. The awkwardness and the issues that people face aren’t easily changed.
Climbing: Right. We’re talking about changing ideology of people who don’t understand where women or minorities are coming from.
Hill: Most of those Trumpster-type people aren’t going to be listening anyway. Maybe some of the people that were at the discussions could be influential in changing their viewpoint, but probably not.
Climbing: So how do we reach those people?
Hill: The Access Fund has the ‘Leave No Trace’ saying. When I read through their pamphlets, I think, Do people really need to be reminded to pick up trash? Isn’t that obvious? Where did these people grow up? Did they just disregard any moral obligation preserve the environment and respect others? So in that light I would have to say that these panels could have an impact and they could have a positive impact if it’s a quality panel discussion. Perhaps people do need to be reminded to pick up after themselves and actually do more than their part. Don’t just pick up your own trash, but pick up whatever trash you find. Why not?
But the reality of our lives is that we’re running from one thing to another. I know I am all the time.
Climbing: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Hill: I would. I don’t like the word because people misinterpret it. It sounds like chauvinist. It sounds guilty of what we’re striving for. I like to use the word equalist. It sounds better.
Feminist is just too charged with old school interpretations of what that means. My son argues with me about this. He thinks feminism is overboard. So I say to him, “Hey, look who your mom is! Look what’s happened in my life and the things I talk about!” He doesn’t appreciate what I’m saying because he’s from a different generation and exposed to different viewpoints. I don’t know what is influencing his viewpoint—maybe it’s a subconscious influence from the things he reads about on social media, or connected to the online video games he plays.
Climbing: What’s your view on the waves of feminism?
Hill: In the 60s, there was definitely a movement and progress towards [fighting] racism and [promoting] feminism. Anything that just seemed wrong like war and social injustices. Women began burning their bras and rebelling against domestic servitude and other social issues—that was a really strong time period. I think the trends of modern society have moved away from those values, because people have become more complacent. Many people suddenly started making a lot more money as new technologies, resources and things like the outdoor industry developed. During the 80’s and 90’s, people got a little spoiled. I forget the way people were describing it… something like the “Me generation.” I think there are social waves that repeat over time. I don’t know what you would call this time period now. It seems a bit tumultuous because there’s real division in our country. Many people are following Trump ideology, which is the opposite of all the progress that I witnessed in my lifetime… It seems like there’s this whole faction of people that is growing and they are trying to take away all of the hard earned progress of previous generations. It’s very scary to me. I don’t know what happened to the “I win, you win” attitude.